In the beginning of Moon landings, there was Russia, then the United States, and then China.
Today, Israel may become the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the Moon with its privately developed Beresheet lander. The landing attempt will be broadcast live starting at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on 11 April.
“The Beresheet spacecraft, literally meaning ‘Genesis’ in Hebrew, offers us many firsts,” Oded Aharonson told Eos. The lander is “the first privately funded spacecraft to the Moon, the first Israeli spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, [and] the first lunar lander to attempt such a wondrous feat at a modest budget.”
Aharonson is a planetary scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science and a mission scientist for SpaceIL, the nonprofit organization that built Beresheet. “I feel excited and honored to be a part of this endeavor,” he said.
Magnetics, Geology, and Lasers
Beresheet was launched into Earth’s orbit on 29 February. A series of short engine burns gradually expanded that orbit until it crossed the point where the Moon’s gravity is stronger than Earth’s. It transferred into a lunar orbit on 4 April, making history as the first privately developed craft to orbit the Moon. A second sequence of engine burns has been slowly shrinking Beresheet’s lunar orbit in preparation for landing.
Beresheet will land in basaltic Mare Serenitatis in an area about halfway between the Apollo 15 and Apollo 17 landing sites:
#Beresheet‘s lunar landing site REVEALED:
Its’ selection focused on ensuring a safe landing, searching for sites with few craters or steep slopes within the landing area that could jeopardize the touchdown.
— Israel ישראל (@Israel) April 3, 2019
Beresheet is about more than just making history for Israel and the private spaceflight industry, Aharonson said. Scientifically, the mission aims “to understand the lunar geology at the landing site [and to] measure the crustal magnetic field and interpret its history on the Moon.”
As Beresheet prepared to transition into lunar orbit, it turned on its magnetometer and began measuring the Moon’s magnetic field and transmitting its data back to Earth. Beresheet will also perform a laser retroreflector experiment in coordination with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The mission will be short-lived. Noontime temperatures on the Moon exceed 100°C, and the team expects Beresheet to survive for only a few days.
A “New Space Age”
SpaceIL, in partnership with government-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, built Beresheet for only about US$100 million. That’s a fraction of the cost of NASA’s Mars InSight lander (US$830 million) and less than it cost to make the movie Interstellar (US$165 million).
“A low-budget spacecraft is obviously less robust than a traditional spacecraft,” Beresheet deputy mission director Yoav Landsman told Eos, “but we designed a very flexible system, softwarewise, that allowed us to confront most obstacles during the flight.”
“This is the time I have been waiting for since the beginning of my work for SpaceIL,” Landsman said, “and I understand the meaning this successful mission [will have] on the worldwide space industry. I [hope] that this mission will significantly contribute to the new space age.”
SpaceIL was founded in 2011 in an attempt to win Google’s Lunar XPRIZE. The contest ended last year with no winner, but the XPRIZE Foundation announced that SpaceIL’s accomplishments will be recognized with its inaugural $1 million Moonshot Award after a successful landing today (11 April).
“SpaceIL’s mission represents the democratization of space exploration,” Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of XPRIZE, said in a statement. “We are optimistic about seeing this first domino fall, setting off a chain reaction of increasingly affordable and repeatable commercial missions to the Moon and beyond.”
—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer